The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen
Not that Herminia had not at times hard struggles and sore temptations. One of the hardest and sorest came when Dolly was about six years old. And this was the manner of it.
One day the child who was to reform the world was returning from some errand on which her mother had sent her, when her attention was attracted by a very fine carriage, stopping at a door not far from their lodgings. Now Dolly had always a particular weakness for everything "grand;" and so grand a turn-out as this one was rare in their neighborhood. She paused and stared hard at it. "Whose is it, Mrs. Biggs?" she asked awe-struck of the friendly charwoman, who happened to pass at the moment,--the charwoman who frequently came in to do a day's cleaning at her mother's lodging-house. Mrs. Biggs knew it well; "It's Sir Anthony Merrick's," she answered in that peculiarly hushed voice with which the English poor always utter the names of the titled classes. And so in fact it was; for the famous gout doctor had lately been knighted for his eminent services in saving a royal duke from the worst effects of his own self-indulgence. Dolly put one fat finger to her lip, and elevated her eyebrows, and looked grave at once. Sir Anthony Merrick! What a very grand gentleman he must be indeed, and how nice it must seem to be able to drive in so distinguished a vehicle with a liveried footman.
As she paused and looked, lost in enjoyment of that beatific vision, Sir Anthony himself emerged from the porch. Dolly took a good stare at him. He was handsome, austere, close-shaven, implacable. His profile was clear-cut, like Trajan's on an aureus. Dolly thought that was just how so grand a gentleman ought to look; and, so thinking, she glanced up at him, and with a flash of her white teeth, smiled her childish approval. The austere old gentleman, unwontedly softened by that cherub face,--for indeed she was as winsome as a baby angel of Raphael's,--stooped down and patted the bright curly head that turned up to him so trustfully. "What's your name, little woman?" he asked, with a sudden wave of gentleness.
And Dolly, all agog at having arrested so grand an old gentleman's attention, spoke up in her clear treble, "Dolores Barton."
Sir Anthony started. Was this a trap to entangle him? He was born suspicious, and he feared that woman. But he looked into Dolly's blue eyes of wonder, and all doubt fled from him. Was it blood? was it instinct? was it unconscious nature? At any rate, the child seemed to melt the grandfather's heart as if by magic. Long years after, when the due time came, Dolly remembered that melting. To the profound amazement of the footman, who stood with the carriage-door ready open in his hand, the old man bent down and kissed the child's red lips. "God bless you, my dear!" he murmured, with unwonted tenderness to his son's daughter. Then he took out his purse, and drew from it a whole gold sovereign. "That's for you, my child," he said, fondling the pretty golden curls. "Take it home, and tell your mammy an old man in the street gave it to you."
But the coachman observed to the footman, as they drove on together to the next noble patient's, "You may take your oath on it, Mr. Wells, that little 'un there was Mr. Alan's love-child!"
Dolly had never held so much money in her hand before; she ran home, clutching it tight, and burst in upon Herminia with the startling news that Sir Anthony Merrick, a very grand gentleman in a very fine carriage, had given a gold piece to her.
Gold pieces were rare in the calm little attic, but Herminia caught her child up with a cry of terror; and that very same evening, she changed the tainted sovereign with Dolly for another one, and sent Sir Anthony's back in an envelope without a word to Harley Street. The child who was born to free half the human race from aeons of slavery must be kept from all contagion of man's gold and man's bribery. Yet Dolly never forgot the grand gentleman's name, though she hadn't the least idea why he gave that yellow coin to her.
Out of this small episode, however, grew Herminia's great temptation.
For Sir Anthony, being a man tenacious of his purpose, went home that day full of relenting thoughts about that girl Dolores. Her golden hair had sunk deep into his heart. She was Alan's own child, after all; she had Alan's blue eyes; and in a world where your daughters go off and marry men you don't like, while your sons turn out badly, and don't marry at all to vex you, it's something to have some fresh young life of your blood to break in upon your chilly old age and cheer you. So the great doctor called a few days later at Herminia's lodgings, and having first ascertained that Herminia herself was out, had five minutes' conversation alone with her landlady.
There were times, no doubt, when Mrs. Barton was ill? The landlady with the caution of her class, admitted that might be so. And times no doubt when Mrs. Barton was for the moment in arrears with her rent? The landlady, good loyal soul, demurred to that suggestion; she knit her brows and hesitated. Sir Anthony hastened to set her mind at rest. His intentions were most friendly. He wished to keep a watch,--a quiet, well-meaning, unsuspected watch,-- over Mrs. Barton's necessities. He desired, in point of fact, if need were, to relieve them. Mrs. Barton was distantly connected with relations of his own; and his notion was that without seeming to help her in obtrusive ways, he would like to make sure Mrs. Barton got into no serious difficulties. Would the landlady be so good--a half sovereign glided into that subservient palm--as to let Sir Anthony know if she ever had reason to suspect a very serious strain was being put on Mrs. Barton's resources?
The landlady, dropping the modern apology for a courtesy, promised with effusion under pressure of hard cash, to accede to Sir Anthony's benevolent wishes. The more so as she'd do anything to serve dear Mrs. Barton, who was always in everything a perfect lady, most independent, in fact; one of the kind as wouldn't be beholden to anybody for a farthing.
Some months passed away before the landlady had cause to report to Sir Anthony. But during the worst depths of the next London winter, when gray fog gathered thick in the purlieus of Marylebone, and shivering gusts groaned at the street corners, poor little Dolly caught whooping-cough badly. On top of the whooping-cough came an attack of bronchitis; and on top of the bronchitis a serious throat trouble. Herminia sat up night after night, nursing her child, and neglecting the work on which both depended for subsistence. Week by week things grew worse and worse; and Sir Anthony, kept duly informed by the landlady, waited and watched, and bided his time in silence. At last the case became desperate. Herminia had no money left to pay her bill or buy food; and one string to her bow after another broke down in journalism. Her place as the weekly lady's-letter writer to an illustrated paper passed on to a substitute; blank poverty stared her in the face, inevitable. When it came to pawning the type-writer, as the landlady reported, Sir Anthony smiled a grim smile to himself. The moment for action had now arrived. He would put on pressure to get away poor Alan's illegitimate child from that dreadful woman.
Next day he called. Dolly was dangerously ill,--so ill that Herminia couldn't find it in her heart to dismiss the great doctor from her door without letting him see her. And Sir Anthony saw her. The child recognized him at once and rallied, and smiled at him. She stretched her little arms. She must surely get well if a gentleman who drove in so fine a carriage, and scattered sovereigns like ha'pennies, came in to prescribe for her. Sir Anthony was flattered at her friendly reception. Those thin small arms touched the grandfather's heart. "She will recover," he said; "but she needs good treatment, delicacies, refinements." Then he slipped out of the room, and spoke seriously to Herminia. "Let her come to me," he urged. "I'll adopt her, and give her her father's name. It will be better for herself; better for her future. She shall be treated as my granddaughter, well-taught, well-kept; and you may see her every six months for a fortnight's visit. If you consent, I will allow you a hundred a year for yourself. Let bygones be bygones. For the child's sake, say yes! She needs so much that you can never give her!"
Poor Herminia was sore tried. As for the hundred a year, she couldn't dream of accepting it; but like a flash it went through her brain how many advantages Dolly could enjoy in that wealthy household that the hard-working journalist could not possibly afford her. She thought of the unpaid bills, the empty cupboard, the wolf at the door, the blank outlook for the future. For a second, she half hesitated. "Come, come!" Sir Anthony said; "for the child's own sake; you won't be so selfish as to stand in her way, will you?"
Those words roused Herminia to a true sense of her duty. "Sir Anthony Merrick," she said holding her breath, "that child is my child, and my dear dead Alan's. I owe it to Alan,--I owe it to her,--to bring her up in the way that Alan would approve of. I brought her into the world; and my duty is to do what I can to discharge the responsibilities I then undertook to her. I must train her up to be a useful citizen. Not for thousands would I resign the delight and honor of teaching my child to those who would teach her what Alan and I believed to be pernicious; who would teach her to despise her mother's life, and to reject the holy memory of her father. As I said to you before, that day at Perugia, so I say to you now, 'Thy money perish with thee.' You need never again come here to bribe me."
"Is that final?" Sir Anthony asked. And Herminia answered with a bow, "Yes, final; quite final."
Sir Anthony bent his head and left. Herminia stood face to face with abject poverty. Spurred by want, by indignation, by terror, by a sense of the absolute necessity for action, she carried her writing materials then and there into Dolly's sick-room, and sitting by her child's cot, she began to write, she hardly knew what, as the words themselves came to her. In a fever of excitement she wrote and wrote and wrote. She wrote as one writes in the silence of midnight. It was late before she finished. When her manuscript was complete, she slipped out and posted it to a weekly paper. It appeared that same Saturday, and was the beginning of Herminia's most valuable connection.
But even after she had posted it the distracted mother could not pause or rest. Dolly tossed and turned in her sleep, and Herminia sat watching her. She pined for sympathy. Vague ancestral yearnings, gathering head within her, made her long to pray,--if only there had been anybody or anything to pray to. She clasped her bloodless hands in an agony of solitude. Oh, for a friend to comfort! At last her overwrought feelings found vent in verse. She seized a pencil from her desk, and sitting by Dolly's side, wrote down her heart-felt prayer, as it came to her that moment,--
A crowned Caprice is god of the world: On his stony breast are his white wings furled. No ear to hearken, no eye to see, No heart to feel for a man hath he. But his pitiless hands are swift to smite, And his mute lips utter one word of might In the clash of gentler souls and rougher-- 'Wrong must thou do, or wrong must suffer.' Then grant, O dumb, blind god, at least that we Rather the sufferers than the doers be.